It’s humble and it’s ubiquitous, but that doesn’t mean the sandwich doesn’t have a very noteworthy history.
And to celebrate National Sandwich Week, here is a guide to how a couple of pieces of bread and some filling spread all over the world.
The first recorded mention of a sandwich-like meal, when ancient Jewish Rabbi Hillel the Elder is said to have started the Passover tradition of putting lamb, mixed nuts and herbs between two pieces of matzo (unleavened bread).
For want of any better crockery, people use thick slices of stale bread as a plate, piling on meat and vegetables to create an open sandwich.
Pubs in Holland serve cured beef with bread and butter, called broodjes, thus creating the first template of what we know as a sandwich today.
The moment the sandwich actually became the sandwich. Notorious gambler John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, was having a particularly long night at the card table and, unable to leave the game, asked his cook to bring him something he could eat without getting up from his seat. Out came some hot roast beef, cheddar and horseradish sauce, all encased in two pieces of bread.
Edward Gibbon, author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, is the first person to write the word ‘sandwich’ in its modern culinary context on November 24, 1762.
Very pleased with his new table snack, the earl continued to eat it, and word of its brilliance soon filtered through London’s society circles – and then to the rest of us.
The word ‘sandwich’ was used in a recipe for the first time, in a recipe book by a lady called Charlotte Mason.
The charmingly English cucumber sandwich is born, with the invention (by Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford) of afternoon tea. Their double joy of being low-calorie and thirst-quenching meant they were quite the hit among ladies who tea-ed. Sadly for Anna, the genteel bite fails to become known as the ‘bedford’.
Rest of the 19th century
London’s ladies, and their husbands, soon spread their new find out to India, where those maintaining the Raj decided some locally grown, succulent cucumbers on some buttery bread was just the thing to keep them cool in the sweltering, very un-English heat.
The French get in on the act, with the croque-monsieur first appearing on Parisian café menus. Rumour has it that the hot cheese and ham sandwich was born when someone left their cold cheese and ham sandwich on the radiator.
Some reports say the First World War was triggered by a trip to a sandwich shop – if Gavrilo Princip hadn’t stopped for a lunchtime snack at Sarajevo’s Moritz Schiller’s delicatessen, he wouldn’t have seen the Archduke Ferdinand’s carriage take a detour past that delicatessen, so he wouldn’t have shot him, and the world might not have descended into one of the bloodiest battles in history.
The invention of the world’s first bread slicer (adopted by a baker in St Louis called Gustav Papendick) revolutionises the mass-market sandwich. History hasn’t recorded what the best thing before this auspicious date actually was.
Scientists at the Chorleywood Flour Milling and Bakery Research Association invent a new way of producing bread. It makes the average loaf in Britain 40% softer, makes every slice uniform, makes it last twice as long, and makes it cheaper. It also makes the sandwich even more popular than ever.
By now, so deep is our love affair with the sarnie that the UK’s sandwich industry creates its own body: the British Sandwich Association.
Figures show Brits eat 3.5 billion sandwiches a year. That’s £7.5 billion worth of bread and filling.
For all the fancy ciabattas stuffed with brie, organic rocket and gourmet olives, a survey by Lurpak reveals the cheese sandwich is the UK’s most popular lunch: three in 10 Brits choose to lunch on it every single day, and have done (every day) for an average of four and a half years.